Humans rely heavily on the written and spoken word. Great communicators also rely on body language. When body language and the spoken word are congruent, effective communication is more likely to occur.
So what do horses do? They use very little verbal communication, and when it does happen, pay attention. They are really trying to communicate with you. However, most of their communication is non-verbal, and instead, is the silent language of the body.
Common cues many people are aware of is when a horse kicks or bites. We know we have a problem. Pinned ears and a swish of the tail can also indicate displeasure. All these cues can be saying: “Back off”.
However, the horse’s communication with their body is so much more than the negative cues listed above. If we humans went about our lives and the only communication anyone ever understood from us was “Back off”, how discouraging might that be? Could you imagine not having anyone listen to you until you were completely frustrated or angry?
Horses are no different. What does their language look like for more positive communication?
I first discovered the answer to this question quite by accident. Over the past several years I have taken my horse, Chaco, on regular walks. I’ve noticed that on occasion he would simply stop walking and stand there and look at me. In my early days of horse ownership, I coaxed him to keep going.
Today, I do the opposite. I stop too, look at him and ask him what he wants. What I’ve noticed is that sometimes he will indicate with his head where he wants to go. His feet planted, but a 90 degree turn of the head and a soft-eye stare at the neighbor’s pasture just a few strides away communicates his desire.
In this case, we can’t go to the neighbor’s pasture, but I look at it with him and agree, yes, that does look really good. Unfortunately, it’s not ours, and we can’t go there. Then he’ll look back at me and then back at the pasture, indicating again where he’d like to go. I acknowledge again how good it would be, but we can’t. I give him a hug, rub his favorite spots on his head and wait a moment, until he seems ready to leave the neighbor’s pasture behind.
When I sense that he might start walking with me again, I start to go, closely paying attention to his body language. If he’s ready to go with me, he will come with no pressure from me on the lead rope. If he’s not ready, he’ll be reluctant to move, in which case I might encourage him to come or wait a few more moments until he’s ready.
Listening like this to your horse when going for a walk can take a lot of time – usually double the typical amount of time to just walk the route with no stops. For me, though, I much prefer this slower approach because my horse is actively engaged in communicating with me. Sometimes we can do his ideas, sometimes we can’t, but I always want to encourage his expression.
One of the best gifts I’ve ever received is the ongoing discovery of who my horse is. Like any relationship, the more I spend time with him, the better I get to know him.
Creating a safe environment in which he can express his opinions, builds his trust in me to listen to him, and encourages him to continue to express himself. It’s why I keep coming back. I can’t wait to find out what he’ll say next.